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Rethinking Alcohol and Pregnancy

Posted in Alcohol Abuse

During pregnancy, the fetus is developing at an astounding rate, with organs and features forming in the very early weeks after conception. Anything that crosses the placenta from the mother has the potential to have an impact on the development of the baby, from drugs to paint fumes. Research has shown alcohol to be especially harmful, with resulting problems lasting into adulthood for the baby.

There are a number of reasons why alcohol consumption is said to be dangerous – and significant research to support the assumptions. Researchers at a Rhode Island Hospital wanted to take a closer look at the affect of alcohol on the brain as it is developing in the womb. By relying on a rat model of FAS, it was determined that the expression of the insulin gene in the cerebella of exposed rats was decreased.

In other words, the survival signals that travel through the brain during development were decreased. Prenatal exposure to alcohol for a baby in the womb is thought to create a deficient energy supply and therefore interferes with these survival signals, effectively attacking the unborn child’s will to live.

One study was recently published in Pediatrics that examined the association between alcohol consumption and birth defects in a Western Australia population. The study looked at associations between dose, pattern and timing of alcohol exposure to the fetus and birth defects. The results showed there was no risk associated with low or moderate alcohol exposure and birth defects.

What this study did not examine, however, was the long-term effects of FASD that can emerge much later in life, or the defects that are apparent in the neurobiological profile of the child when physical features are absent.

The study examined a population of 4,714 non-indigenous women and their infants in Western Australia between 1995 and 1997. The women were linked through the Western Australia Midwives Notification System and the Western Australia Birth Defects Registry data. The researchers collected information about alcohol consumption three months after birth and recorded consumption information about the three-month period before conception and then each trimester of pregnancy.

Alcohol consumption was classified by how many standard drinks were used each week. Less than seven drinks per week, or 10 grams per week or two drinks per day were classified as low alcohol consumption. More than 70 grams per week of alcohol consumption was considered a heavy drinker and those who consumed more than 140 grams were classified as very heavy drinkers.

Such studies limit our ability to determine how alcohol affects an unborn child simply because it only studies birth defects as they are defined today. What this study overlooks are the behavioral and adjustment problems that are much harder to identify and can truly only be diagnosed by a trained professional.

One San Diego State University study found that children with exposure to alcohol in the womb are known to meet the criteria for fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) even when they show no physical signs of defect. The neurobehavioral profile must be used to identify those children at risk, which should be assumed to include all children exposed to alcohol in the womb.